Harare — Zimbabwe's parliament should strengthen the Education Amendment Bill of 2019 to fully adhere to every child's right to a quality primary and secondary education, Human Rights Watch said today in an open letter to Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, chairperson of the parliament's Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education.
The bill does not sufficiently address five key issues, Human Rights Watch said. It should explicitly guarantee free primary and secondary education to every child. It should include the right to inclusive education for those with disabilities and to students who are pregnant or are parents. The bill should guarantee protection from all forms of violence in schools and include a requirement to provide comprehensive sexuality education.
"Zimbabwe's parliament's proposals to protect every child's right to education are very encouraging," said Elin Martinez, children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The bill provides a great opportunity to adopt stronger measures to protect some of the most vulnerable learners, including those from the poorest households, children with disabilities, and girls who become pregnant."
Zimbabwe's parliament introduced the draft Education Amendment Bill in February 2019. Members of parliament conducted multiple public consultations throughout April. The current bill guarantees state-funded basic education, and protection from corporal punishment and other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. It protects children who cannot pay school fees, those with disabilities, and those who become pregnant from being excluded.
Human Rights Watch called for several changes to the current draft. These changes are needed to ensure that Zimbabwe complies with its international and regional human rights obligations, as well as its commitments under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Human Rights Watch said.
The bill's current focus on "state funded basic education" does not include an explicit guarantee of the right to free education. The bill should state that primary education for all learners, including those with disabilities, is free and immediately realizable, and that free secondary education is available and accessible, Human Rights Watch said.
Although the bill includes learners with disabilities, it remains focused on providing "special needs education." Parliament should amend the bill to protect the right to inclusive education, and be in compliance with Zimbabwe's obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
"Inclusive education" requires educating children and young people with disabilities in mainstream schools in their neighborhood with supplementary aids, support, and services, known as "reasonable accommodations," if necessary. Experts say it is the best way for governments to guarantee the right to education to everyone without discrimination.
The bill's provision that "no child shall be discriminated against on the basis of pregnancy" is a positive measure, Human Rights Watch said. More than 24 percent of adolescent girls and young women ages 15 to 19 become mothers every year in Zimbabwe, according to the United Nations Population Fund. The bill should explicitly guarantee pregnant girls and young women and those who are parents the right to remain in school during pregnancy and to have the support they need to return to school, Human Rights Watch said.
By adding this protection, Zimbabwe would adhere to regional human rights obligations and join other Southern African Development Community member countries, many of which have a law or national policy in place that outlines schools' obligations to safeguard the right to education of pregnant learners and mothers, and in some cases, fathers.
As currently drafted, the bill bans beating students or exposing them to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. This prompted some initial opposition from parent groups and community representatives. Human Rights Watch urged members of parliament to retain these strong provisions to reinforce the government's obligation to ensure students' safety in school. A UNICEF-sponsored study on violence against children in Zimbabwe shows that teachers are the primary authority figures responsible for physical violence against children.
The study also shows that learners face sexual violence in schools. Human Rights Watch recommended that parliament add to the bill explicit protections from other forms of school-related gender-based violence, including sexual abuse and exploitation.
"Many children are left out or drop out of education because of fees, discrimination, or violence in Zimbabwe's schools," Martinez said. "A stronger Education Act will clarify the government's obligations so that all children across the country can realize their right to learn in safe and inclusive schools."